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The Art of Laughter: Using GIFs to Connect

Matt Peters
September 27, 2018

People like to laugh. It’s plain and simple. A little humor can go a long way when turning an ordinary story into an enjoyable one. However, when it comes to digital storytelling, sometimes it can be hard to get humor across without tone or nonverbal cues (anyone who has ever sent a sarcastic text only to have it horribly misunderstood can probably relate).

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That leaves us with the question of how can both people and brands harness the power of humor to tell better digital stories.

The answer is GIFs.

Frankly, if you don't know what a GIF is by now then you are missing out on a genuinely enjoyable culture. For all the Patrick Stars out there who live under a rock, I’ll briefly explain the concept of a GIF. GIF stands for graphics interchange format. While technically a GIF is a file format that any animation or static image can be put in, much like a JPEG or PDF, it means something a little different when its used as cultural jargon.


For our purposes the term GIF or animated GIF refers to any short animation that runs on a loop. Sometimes they are from homemade videos, but more often than not they are pulled from pop culture like movies, TV shows, famous figures, etc. The on-trend GIFs come and go, but the most popular ones are usually harness a specific kind of mood. They show a relatable feeling or action that is better described through animation than words. All caught up? Good. Find the concept of a GIF a little ambiguous? You'll get what I mean when you see some examples. 

In the storytelling arena, GIFs are used to enhance a story told in a digital medium. Think of them as emojis 2.0. They add exact moving emotion to a story and lead to a more accurate portrayal by the storyteller.

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They are so good at conveying stories that sometimes they can replace the written part all together. Who needs to tell their friend about the four breakdowns they had from studying all day when they have a GIF of Kim Kardashian crying that conveys what they're feeling better than any words ever could?

 Kim K Cries


In addition to working in a conversational setting, GIFs can also stand alone with just a title. This method works similar to memes. The caption of the GIF provides the context of the story. These GIF stories are relatable because of the that situational context. It’s something a majority of the audience has experienced and therefore we can relate to the mood of the GIF.


Finally, GIFs don't have to be used exclusively by the storyteller. They are a great way to show a response or reaction to a story accurately. Reaction GIFs are contingent on whatever else was said in the context, not internally within the GIF. They demonstrate nonverbal cues that the storyteller would have been able to see on their audience if the story had been told face to face.

GIFs are widely loved and enjoyed for a couple of reasons. They are extremely short, recognizable, relatable, and probably most importantly, they can add humor and reliability to any situation.

The Science of GIFs

Visual Storytelling

As humans we are drawn to visuals. The human brain processes images significantly faster than text. In fact, around 60,000 times faster. This tendency of people to crave visual content is reinforced by the wave of visual social medias such as Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Snapchat. Culturally we also lean towards storytelling as a means so sharing information. The method for telling stories called visual storytelling is extremely effective because we can easily and quickly process it. A moving image tell a complete story in only a moments time in a way that’s easily understood by our brains.


Short n Sweet

The average adult spends 2 hours a day on social media, and the average teen spends 9. That’s a crazy amount of time for the consumption of content. Statically the amount of information we are being presented with is drastically going up, and on top of that, our attention spans are quickly going down.

In 2018, and the average human has an 8 second attention span and millions of options of actual content. This makes it really hard for marketers and content creators to even get a single message across to viewers before they swipe on down. GIFs are highly concentrated with engaging information and only take a few second to view. This makes them an ideal way to form a quick but significant relationship with your audience.


A GIF is an inside joke between the storyteller and audience. If you don't know the animation or don't relate with the context you won’t understand the humor. But if you use GIFs with your intended audience in mind, the results can be quite positive. They can also foster themes and ongoing narratives between a brand and consumers. 

How Brands Can Use GIFs

GIFs aren’t just for interpersonal storytelling. They can be a powerful tool in content marketing to connect and engage with your audience. Content that contains GIFs have higher click-through rates than those without. As mentioned above, the 3 main uses of humor GIFs in storytelling are telling a stand-alone story, in conversation, or as a reaction. The place where brands can build this content web is with their audience is on social media.

GIFs are an effective tool for engaging with your social media audience. By incorporating GIFs in your content, you can subtly tell stories about your brand that entertain your audience and push potential customers towards your landing page.

So how do brands pick the perfect GIF?

 Do you love it?


Using quality GIFs is important if you want your message to be clear. Giphy is a great GIF search engine for finding already made GIFs. Although they do have a setting where you can make your own, this website specializes in pop culture GIFs and keeping up with what’s on trend. It has a GIF keyboard where you can search for GIFs by emotion or action, using keywords like “happy” or “sorry”. They also have a homepage where they update trending GIFs. 


Using pop culture GIFs are a great way to connect to a younger demographic in an engaging way. But here’s the thing, if you are going to use pop culture GIFs you need to know the pop culture context. Be careful to pick GIFs that come from shows or characters that still align with your brand image. When brands use GIFs it’s about more than just being funny. It’s about enhancing your brand story, so choose wisely.


One way to avoid this challenge all together to create GIFs based directly off of your brand. A GIF maker like gifs.com is great for creating GIFs. You can use videos of important company people (like videos of the CEO or other employees), brand TV commercials, or other snippets of your brand to create an engaging GIF of your own. This has the added benefit of being directly related to your brand story as you are the actual subject of the GIF. Bud Light

You can even bridge a brand image or video with a pop culture GIF by using GIF stickers, which as the name suggests is a cutout GIF that you can drag and drop on your own piece of content. Instead of using just a text context in the form of a title, stickers use the visual context of whatever image you are attaching them too. They also can be added to Instagram stories and snapchat stories, which expands what socials you can use GIFs on.

Branded GIFs can have many uses outside of humor, they can be an engaging product preview, short video infographics, or even just a visually pleasing piece of content. But since our focus today is on using GIFs to add some humor to your story, let’s look at a couple of examples of branded GIFs that do this well.

Using a Branded GIF for Humor

Most of us can relate to the excitement that comes with the prospects of pizza. While we don't literally jump out of our chairs yelling with excitement when the pizza is done (or maybe you do, I'm not judging), any pizza lover can tell you that that’s exactly what’s going on in their head. That’s what makes this example from Digornos so effective. The relatable context paired with the branded GIF (check out that Digornos box on the table) work together to tell their overarching intended story of “this is some good pizza and you should be excited for it” in a humorous way.

Branded GIFs can also be used to join a conversation. This can be done by using reaction GIFs to respond to your audience’s comments or joining in on a viral conversation such as the next example.

In 2016 #GIFparty was trending on twitter, while the NHL could have posted any old GIF to join the movement, they decided to do it creatively with a branded GIF. Using a funny play on words the NHL asks, Did anyone remember to bring cups to the #GIFparty?” along with a GIF of the Stanley Cup. Rangers Dancing

This brings us back to the fact that humorous GIFs work because they act like an inside joke. For people who don't know anything about hockey and didn't know the name of the trophy being held is the Stanley Cup, this joke would have gone right over their heads. But non-hockey enthusiasts aren’t really the National Hockey League’s intended audience, now are they? The joke is between the NHL and their intended audience and that’s what makes it engaging.

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